by Chiwan Choi
Illustrated by Maddie Saunders

His stomach almost touches the lower arc of the steering wheel. I think he looks much better with his hair buzzed tight on the sides like he keeps it now. There is still a heart attack inside him about to awaken on the sunniest day of the year. His fingers are wrapped tight on the steering wheel, knuckles turning white from the pressure. My mom loves his hands, perfectly round like my head when he makes a fist. It’s hard to imagine those hands one day holding a woman he loves the same way he held his beloved Glock 9 while firing it at his roommate in Boston, or the same way those short, thick fingers dropped a rock at the end of a stranger’s pipe with so much care. His index finger stretches out and he hits number three on the stereo.

We have been on the street for hours tonight. The patrol car that passes us as we wait at the intersection reads Torrance Police on the side.

Torrance. I don’t know how we keep ending up in Torrance. I am singing a song in my head and thinking about his father (who once came home drunk on soju and thrust his fishing trophy at me, leaning down and covering me with an alcohol cloud), and how I laughed when he told me to run, run like hell because his son was going to lead me to ruin. Then minutes later, the old man started snoring in his bedroom, his door open, and we walked to the liquor store and bought twelve bottles of wine coolers, walking past the trees in his West LA neighborhood that smelled like cum.

Are you cold? he asks turning to me.

I don’t know if it was because of the way we met (fists up and chests pushed out, faces contorted into movie-character rage and moving our lips without a sound to make it look like we were threatening to kill each other) or in spite of it, but we always treated each other with what we thought was respect.

That first time was on the handball courts of Wilton Elementary on 8th and Wilton Place. The bell was ringing to end recess. Jodi, who’d just changed her name from Seung Hui to Jodi, had on a striped alligator shirt and dusted her butt off with both hands when she got up from the bench. This was the year she was becoming prettier than her older sister, who was in ninth grade and already had an American name. I don’t remember now, but it was most likely Helen or Sue; she had already slept with my neighbor Mikey, or at least that’s the story he told. I started walking after Jodi, but George pulled the pink ball from my hands. It made me lose my balance. Jodi turned for something, although I doubt it was to say anything to me. She saw me trip and fall. From the ground on my side, I could see her hand go up to cover her mouth.

I was a little bit taller than him thanks to the enormity of my head, but he had bulk on me because even then he was fat. I pushed myself up off the pavement. That’s when our fists came up after a brief exchange of names for our respective mothers and something about taking it up the ass. I can’t recall who it was who threw the first punch or which one of us took the first hit. We never talk about it, about that day. However, as Jodi was running toward the office to tell of our fight, the sight of her backside and the faded circles on each cheek of her stretch Jordache jeans made my breath lodge up at the top of my brain as we both went tumbling to the ground.

We sat in the principal’s office, he in a puffy blue ski jacket with the sleeves removed, along with his trademark yellow wristband, and me in a red hand-me-down Harley-Davidson T-shirt that I got from Mikey when he left for juvie. We sat on a bench pushed against the wall by the door and the principal leaned against his desk. I didn’t like shaking his hands when he walked around the school trying to get to know all the kids. He had sweaty hands, what we learned to call clammy. His arms were crossed against his chest one minute, then they unfolded and his hands dropped into his jacket pockets. I paid attention to the creases in my pants. They had to be straight. My mom was tired of fighting me about them, threatening me with the iron whenever I complained that she did my pants wrong. I turned my head a little and looked. He was adjusting his yellow wristband. Our eyes met. We nodded. Then the smiles.

I turn to him. The streetlights reflect off his glasses. I see our world on his face, this world that exists and expires in increments of night.

You’re not cold? he asks again.

No, I say. The best part is coming up.

C-c-c-c-c-cocaine, I sing out loud.

Yeah, he says and laughs.

The polyester of his windbreaker makes rustling sounds when he rubs his stomach. And as we turn on Hawthorne Boulevard, I can picture us standing in an alley. He is standing in front of his truck and I am near him, the headlights still on and lighting our legs. It would only take two steps for me to reach him. The menthol of his Newports would clear my head if I wrapped my arms around him. My back would be ready for the touch of those bad hands that cut fish so perfectly. I point left on 226th then back to the picture. Our lives deserve that moment of touch, of losing our breath in the tightness of an embrace, with the grumbling engine of the truck putting an accent on our silence. Then a right on Madison Street as I turn to the window on my right, a slight reflection of my cheek and nose, trying to find the meaning of what we have done to each other in the name of respect, of manhood. I will only say to him, “I love you,” in the moment when I wake up crying on a lumpy mattress in a Koreatown apartment, smoke hovering over the candle burned down to the end. Here, between two boys in Los Angeles, secrets have fallen into the creases of Crenshaw and the small gestures of midnight.